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Meet the new sheriff in town - Annette Sandberg
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s new administrator tells Land Line readers about her qualifications, her approach to safety and technology on trucks, FMCSA’s role in national security, how to improve the trucker hotline, some concerns with new hours-of-service rules, the need for more and safer truck parking areas in the states, and more

by Dick Larsen, senior editor

LL: What are your main goals for the FMCSA?

Annette Sandberg

Sandberg: When I came in here, the secretary (DOT Secretary Norman Mineta) had common goals that he gave to the head of Federal Highway Administration and the head of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and myself. (He said) we would work together to reduce overall fatality numbers on our nation’s highways.

FMCSA’s portion of that goal is to reduce commercial vehicle fatalities to 1.65 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by the year 2008. Which, in essence, means we need about a 41 percent reduction. That is a very aggressive goal given that it’s looking at a snapshot from 1996 to 2008, and so one of the things I have told staff we need to do is make sure all of our programs and our energy … focuses on that goal.

LL: Do you see what needs to be fixed first in order to get toward that goal?

Sandberg: Fortunately, and I tell staff this, I am coming in at a really good time because we have seen over the last five years commercial vehicle fatalities going down, and last year they went down by the most significant amount we have seen in over a decade. In fact, they were the only category of motor vehicles that saw a decrease last year. So I would say we are already doing things right. And I’m not just talking the agency … when I talk about “we” — I’m saying what the trucking industry has done, what truck drivers are doing, and what we all do in partnership (is) try to make sure … we are safe players out there on the roadway. I think that those things are working. We just need to continue doing more.

LL: How do you think your past role in law enforcement will help you proceed with your new duties at the agency?

Sandberg: You know … I have never driven a truck (professionally), even though I did growing up on a farm. My role in law enforcement actually started as a commercial vehicle inspector in Washington state. And, so, I have been on the underside of trucks and I have spent a lot of time in scale houses talking to truck drivers as they came through and we inspected their vehicles. (I) found out the kinds of conditions they operated under and the dilemmas they had in making sure that their equipment was always well maintained, and those kinds of things. I guess I would say that it has given me a pretty broad perspective, rather than just simply being a regulator.

You know, I haven’t sat behind a desk my entire career. And I have seen the results when a car and a truck crash. I have seen the results when a car behaves badly around a truck, and I have seen the results when a truck behaves badly around cars. That first-hand experience of seeing people injured and killed constantly reminds me of why we’re here and what we’re about ... that’s to make sure everybody out there on the roadways gets home safe. And that we balance what we do. 

Enforcement can’t do it all, and I learned that when I was in the state police. Every time somebody makes a law or regulation, you hope that most want (to comply); in fact, most do want to comply ... (People) need to know what it is that you are expecting them to do and that it is actually doable, and then enforcement is really just for that small percentage of people that flat out don’t want to do what you are asking them to do. ...

LL: Does the agency now have a role in national security and if so, how would you describe that role?

Sandberg: It’s kind of an ever-evolving role. I would say after September 11, because the Transportation Security Administration had not been created, we really stepped in and started playing a very active role through some of the regulations that we instituted on doing security sensitivity visits, particularly of hazmat carriers and working on showing up any potential problems there may be with regard to the CDL. Initially, Congress and the DOT had focused on our agency to do the USA Patriot Act implementation, which was the fingerprinting of hazmat drivers, but that role has changed mostly because TSA was created, and TSA was given the responsibility for land security. 

However, we still have a role because safety and security are interlinked no matter what you say. They really have to be linked together, and TSA can’t afford to hire all the people that we already have out there. (We) are working very closely with TSA and looking at the overall regime of where can we contribute, but yet we are not the ultimate agency responsible — TSA and the Department of Homeland Security (play a role). We too play a role, but it is more of an ancillary role. 

(And) because we have been working with the industry and drivers longer than TSA has, we serve as a conduit to let TSA understand the industry a little bit better. They have got some great people over there, but they are so few that we can kind of help be their eyes and ears and talk to industry groups to find out impacts of regulations and those kinds of things. And then (we) also work in trying to find ways to better educate people when new rules come in.

LL: How is the agency dealing with the possibility that a truck might be used for terrorist purposes?

Sandberg: Surely, I think Congress’ intent when it passed the USA Patriot Act (was) to require a high level of scrutiny for hazmat drivers. The interim final rule (includes) a list of disqualifying convictions … They also check terrorist watch lists and those kinds of things and set up kind of a framework to ensure as much security as you possibly could without at the same time shutting the industry down. We in government have to be very careful (to ensure) security, but at the same time ensure business still flows.

LL: We’ve heard TSA will delay the date by which fingerprint-based checks will be required of truck drivers. Do you know the new date?

Sandberg: I know they have got a number of petitions that they are considering, but they have not told us what the answer is. And believe me, we are anxious to know also because we have a companion rule making, because it is our rule making that requires the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and the states to comply. And so our rule making is kind of being held until we find out what TSA does.

LL: What can be done about the lack of safe places to park a truck across the country?

Sandberg: I have spoken to Mary Peters (the head of the Federal Highway Administration) about this. This really is my concern because I want to make sure truck drivers have a safe place to pull over, particularly if they need to spend some time in the sleeper berth or get some rest. And she (Mary) is working with a number of organizations to really try to look at this issue. 

And so, it’s an issue that she and I have discussed a number of times. (We need to figure out) what incentives to provide states as they plan rest stops or rest areas to increase capacity in any way …

But really, we can only do so much at the federal level. What we are trying to do is make sure we engage state departments of transportation and that they do the kind of infrastructure planning and look at where they put highway rest stops — and if they have ample enough parking for trucks to park there — those kinds of things.

LL: What are your thoughts on the amount of unpaid time drivers have to wait at loading and unloading docks since that time under the new HOS rule counts toward the 14-hour limit.

Sandberg: You know, that is something that has been intriguing me since we released the hours-of-service regulations. I have spoken to a number of trucking association groups and others who have said the same thing. One of the proposals … is (to provide) a little more outreach into the shipper community. 

One of the things I’ve been told is that a lot of the shippers are just simply not aware of the new HOS changes and their impact on drivers. And if that’s the case, they are right. We probably need to make sure they understand the implications if they can’t get a driver in and out fairly quickly. So that is clearly something that we need to look at. 

We are trying to get over the first hurdle, which is to make sure we get all the truckers educated which, in and of itself, as you know, is a challenge. But I think clearly that is a step we need to take. I have already talked to some of our staff about who we need to tap into from the shipper’s side of things … As far as regulation, I don’t know if there is really anything we can do at this stage. Nobody has come up with any great ideas. But, I think education … and again, my pitch on any rules is that I would prefer to educate and get voluntary compliance before I pop out another regulation. 

I am a real believer that we do not need to regulate if we don’t have to. I don’t want to write more rules. We need to take a real common-sense approach to this, and if education and partnering together will get compliance that we need, then that is what we need to do first.

LL: You testified recently in Congress and talked about the importance of government and industry partnerships as a way of making U.S. roads and trucks safer. Is there any particular technology you think holds more promise than any other kind in that regard?

Sandberg: Actually, we have had a couple of partnerships where I think there is a lot of promise. The first is our project called the CVISN Project, which is the Commercial Vehicle Information Systems and Networks. And this is working with our state partners and industry partners across the country to basically put transponders and readers on the side of trucks that are read before the truck passes the scale house, and then it will actually tell the roadside inspector when the truck was last inspected, what kind of goods it is carrying, whether they purchased all their permits, those kinds of things. 

And really the objective of this technology is, again getting back to my overall enforcement theory — don’t deal with the people you don’t need to deal with. Let them bypass the scale, let them continue on doing their business, and screen out the ones that you know you need to focus on, the ones that are not keeping their equipment up, or the ones that haven’t purchased their permits, or the ones that are overweight, or whatever it might be …

I think it is a benefit to the industry if (a) truck can completely bypass the scale if everything is in order. Time is money, and that certainly saves time when (a truck doesn’t) have to sit in queue waiting to get inspected. 

There are some other projects. (We are) looking at equipment on trucks, crash-prevention-type technology that would actually identify objects up ahead before the driver can actually see them, or some breaking technology that we have been working on with a number of companies that ensures the truck doesn’t jackknife — it actually breaks the wheels differentially so that it keeps the truck straight — those kinds of things. 

We have had a number of companies that have been field testing some of this technology, and I think anything we can do that keeps the industry moving, keeps commerce and freight moving and makes sure we are moving as safely as possible, those are the areas we will continue to focus on.

LL: Will the agency play a role related to the use of container security? Is there any kind of tracking technology that seems to hold promise?

Sandberg: This is TSA’s responsibility. I think the most critical question is (knowing) what went into the container before it ever got onto the ship, and (knowing) that nobody has put anything else into the container. Some of the technology out there that is already being used by large companies, the transponder technology … can basically tell you what is on a truck when it leaves the yard. So some of that transponder technology will work. 

We need to make sure that anything we do for security doesn’t in any way hamper safety … Often times if you have multiple transponders on a truck, (they) will blank the others out. So you have to make sure that there is a single transponder that contains multiple data points and can be read by different readers for different purposes. So we are trying to make sure that anything we and TSA do (integrates) that technology so companies don’t have to pick and choose.

LL: Do you foresee any studies or rule makings on the possible mandatory use of onboard recording devices as a way to comply with the truckers’ daily log requirements and, if you do, how might they be used to accurately record dock time as on-duty?

Sandberg: That is the trickiest question. (In 2000), it was proposed that we would mandate electronic onboard recorders. The data we had when we got ready to release the rules showed there wasn’t a cost benefit to mandate them at this time, mostly because there were a lot of loopholes. Police officers at the roadside couldn’t necessarily see what the data was, the (devices) could be tampered with, at least the current ones that are out there, and it’s kind of easy to shut them on and shut them off ... 

A very large research issue (at FMCSA) in ’04 and ’05 is to look at not only electronic onboard recorders, but other types of technology that may be out there to record hours of service. 

And we are willing to look at GPS systems. We are willing to look at whatever the industry might have out there. But until we have good research and good data to show that they are cost effective, I don’t see us mandating them. And, obviously, we need to take care of some of concerns everybody has, which is how do you record the time at the dock, those kinds of things. 

So the research factors that we are going to be looking at are the ability to identify the individual driver, whether (the devices) are tamper resistant, the ability to produce records for audit, that is important, the ability of roadside enforcement to quickly and easily access that information, and also the level of protection afforded to personnel and operations. 

Obviously there is proprietary information there, and the concern (is that) not everything needs to be used for enforcement ... So we have some privacy issues that we clearly need to deal with before we would mandate these ... I think that is only fair that we ensure people’s privacy is protected.

LL: Truckers we’ve talked to don’t feel there is much of a meaningful response to the DOT hotline Congress set up some years ago. Is there anything that can be done to improve the hotline?

Sandberg: We are working on our responsiveness to the hotline. One of the questions I had when I came in was how many calls we were getting and whether they are being utilized appropriately, do we send the information out and follow up (appropriately). So we have seen an increase in the number of calls going to the hotline over the last several years, which to me is a good sign even though it’s not a huge increase. 

I think we need to work on publicizing it, and publicize what we do for follow up ... The biggest concern is that people aren’t going to call and complain unless they know that there is follow up. We clearly have that problem on a whole host of programs, not just the hotline, whether it is hours of service or other things ... One of the things we are trying to do is have a fairly aggressive campaign of looking at ... radio, print media and the Web. So some of what we are working on right now is a better strategy on how we communicate messages. So clearly we need to do some follow-up on what we are doing with those.

LL: There is a lot of emphasis on enforcement, but has there been much thought given to stopping problems before they occur in the first place? And in that sense, do you see a need for better training standards or stricter requirements governing who gets to drive a truck in the first place?

Sandberg: Right. I think, and again using my overall philosophy, you educate up front ... try to deal with the problems before they ever become problems, then those you can’t deal with you enforce. So we clearly need to do more education. There is no doubt about that. 

We just recently released a couple of notice of proposed rulemakings on driver training, and we are really interested in hearing from the industry and drivers on ways that they think that might help. But at the same time, we don’t want to overburden people. Again, this is that fine line that we constantly walk. 

(For example), do we require so much training that nobody can become a truck driver when we’re hearing there’s already somewhat of a driver shortage? So we have to be cautious there. But there are a number of initiatives that we are taking on right now, which is to make sure that we don’t have bad drivers out there. Everything from tightening the commercial driver’s license protocols ... and we have worked closely with AAMVA to reduce the incidents of fraud, people who are selling CDLs, because we don’t want bad drivers out there. 

We recently enacted a rule that requires that we now see a driver’s full driving record, not just when they are operating a commercial truck, but we also see when they are operating in their private passenger vehicle, then that will determine whether they keep their CDL. Then we have some initiatives that are under way to kind of shore up the medical qualifications of drivers, because that has been an area of huge concern, and Congress has told us repeatedly they want us to look at that. So we are going to be looking at that area because if you get good drivers in at the front end, you make sure that they are qualified, make sure they are medically certified, that will help reduce a lot of the problems and the perception that there are bad drivers out there.

LL: OOIDA recently called on drivers to participate in June Safety Month, where the association’s leadership urged all the drivers to log it as they do it. But yet, there was still pressure by others to “get the load delivered on time, no matter what.” Your reaction?

Sandberg: You know, one, we do need to do more education and we also need to explain to carriers who are forcing these drivers to do this that we do have the ability to reach out. When they force a driver to drive in excess hours and let’s say they get caught, then that shows up in the inspection report and that inspection report feeds into our SafeStat system, and then that particular carrier is flagged for compliance review. The more frequently they pop up, out of service violations, or any kind of wrongful violation, that is going to change their rating, so that is one thing. 

Then they need to worry about us coming in there and going through all their books and looking at everything. The other is that we have proposed in Safe Key, the legislation that is before Congress right now in the president’s bill, some increased penalties for carriers that actually compel a driver to violate an out-of-service order, for one. There are now going to be criminal penalties that attach and, also, there is another piece that is kind of a bigger reach, which is that if we see a pattern, a consistent pattern from management on safety violations, then we have the ability to go in and have larger fines and actual criminal penalties on that management. 

We know that management drives a lot of things, and that if they are pushing a driver, they have pushed him real hard and are saying, “hey, we are going to look the other way,” in the end that doesn’t do any of us any good. We want to make sure that trucks are moving safely, that they are moving efficiently, but everybody has to participate in making sure that happens.

—by Dick Larsen, senior editor

Dick Larsen can be reached at dlarsen@landlinemag.com.

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